Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 1

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeI anticipate that it’s going to be a read as slow as it is formative. I recently began working my way through Roger Lipsey’s attentive and long-overdue biography on the remarkable Swedish diplomat and economist Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld served as the second secretary-general of the United Nations (1953–61). He was, as Rowan Williams has observed, ‘one of the most significant moral influences in international politics in the decades immediately after the war’ and who almost single-handedly shaped the ‘vision for international co-operation and crisis management that we struggle to realise and, however reluctantly, take for granted across a great deal of the globe’. For better or ill, the international community today lives with Hammarskjöld’s inheritance. In a review of Lipsey’s book (published in the recently resurrected Cambridge Humanities Review), Williams properly reminds us that

If we largely assume that the United Nations, imperfect as it is, is the only viable forum for brokering international conventions and agreeing on responses to serious crises, it is Hammarskjöld we have to thank for this. And if we also feel intense frustration at the ineffectiveness of the UN as an active peacekeeping force, its failure to offer protection to those most at risk or to exert sanctions against tyrants, this book will help us understand the roots of this, both in Hammarskjöld’s own scrupulous attempts to prevent the UN becoming an intervening power in its own right and in the consistent refusal of major powers to collaborate on sustainable protocols about this and their blinkered loyalty to ‘bloc’ interests. If you want to know why the UN can’t and won’t sort out the nightmare of Syria, many of the answers lie here.

Hammarskjöld was a public figure dedicated to a life of serving the world through the fostering of imagination and policies that serve the interests of peace and reconciliation and hope in a world whose very structures so often pull in a counter direction. He was also a figure who carried an unwavering conviction that true service to the world means descending into the world to be of service, however humble, on terms that worldly people value.

He was one too who attended to the deep things of the spirit. His only book, Vägmärken (Markings), which was published posthumously in 1963, is a collection of his diary reflections from 1925 (when he was 20 years old) until his death (in suspicious circumstances) in 1961. More importantly, it is an astonishing testimony to what nourished him internally. Lipsey describes this nourishment in terms of a ‘sanctuary’, noting some of the ways that this ‘sense of sanctuary’ (p. 4) found expression – in the creation, for example, of a small meditation room on the ground floor of the UN headquarters, the Room of Quiet, for which Hammarskjöld wrote a short statement which reads:

This is a room devoted to peace
and those who are giving their
lives for peace. It is a room of quiet
where only thoughts should speak.

There is a real sense in which the room itself bears witness to something profoundly true about Hammarskjöld himself. As Rolf Edberg (the Swedish Ambassador to Norway) noted on the occasion of the posthumously awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, ‘No one who met [Hammarskjöld] could help noticing that he had a room of quiet within himself’. That sanctuary was nurtured and deepened and sustained by a life fed by the reading of Scripture, and by other spiritual writings by Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, Blaise Pascal, Martin Buber, the fourteenth mystic who penned The Cloud of Unknowing and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, as well as Buddhist and Taoist and Tibetan writings, and by a life given to prayer.

Although I’ve only just begun to wade into its waters, what is already apparent about Lipsey’s remarkable study is the way that he resists the temptation, taken up by so many biographers, to divorce the inner and the outer, the public and the private, worlds of his subject. Lipsey is committed to presenting Hammarskjöld as one in whom the spirituality evident in Markings both informs and is informed by his very public life and the policies and practices that he was determined to encourage on the international stage. Such a commitment is not only honest scholarship but it also recalls the great personal cost associated with the manner and vision of leadership that Hammarskjöld himself demonstrated, and it offers a challenge to those of us who are called to public roles (albeit less public than Hammarskjöld’s) and to attendance to (with the manner of integrity required of the subject) an honest and thinking faith. It also raises questions, at least for me, about how one might serve within an institution like ‘the church’ when its practices and theological convictions may be significantly at odds with one’s own, and do so with integrity, humility, patience and hope. And about those whom we serve but whose service takes other forms and is primarily outwith the boundaries of the churchly institution. How might one atmosphere inform the other, and how might one stay grounded and whole?

So Lipsey:

Many know something of spirituality in the sanctuary of a spiritual community or in their privacy. But what becomes of it, how does it serve and find paths forward when it must return to the world – when it has duties? Does it enrich a man or woman’s dedication to work? Does it strike deep roots in plain things or is it aloof? Does it touch life and allow itself to be touched only because there is no practical alternative? Does it learn from troubled circumstances and difficult people or does it long for the close of business so that it can go off on its own? Is it denatured by stress or does it somehow thrive? Does it make one more clear-sighted and strategic when strategy is needed – or hamper mobility by draping it in holy vestments, in slow ideas? (p. 4)

For Hammarskjöld, it seems, such questions expose and heighten the necessity of attendance to the sanctuary, to prayer. It is not as if prayer ‘works’, or as if prayer helps us to ‘make sense’ of life, or even of prayer itself. There is nothing utilitarian about true prayer. But in the mystery of prayer, the church (and here she is not alone) believes we are gathered up into God’s own movement of love and shadows; we are gathered up into home.

There is something palpable too about what I understand to be a deep christological mooring in Hammarskjöld’s unharnessed dedication to service in and of the world all the while being rooted in the mysteries and service of God, and of seeing each as being indispensible to the other. Something of this is borne witness to in a prayer that Hammarskjöld penned in 1954, the opening four lines of which (as a translator and interpreter of Markings, Bernhard Erling, has shown) are intensely trinitarian:

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art
Also within us,
May all see Thee – in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee,
May I thank Thee for all that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others,
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldest that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand,
And in Thee is all power and goodness.

Give me a pure heart – that I may see Thee,
A humble heart – that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love – that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith – that I may abide in Thee. (Markings, 100)

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